Most vegans and meat eaters agree: the lives of animals are not worth enough for us to willingly sacrifice our health for them. Vegans just don’t think that giving up animal products entails such a sacrifice.
In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan writes:
There is no question that meat is a nutritious food. In particular, it is a source of complete protein, containing all the amino acids essential for human health and vitality. If it were true that these nutrients were not otherwise obtainable, then the case for eating meat, even given the rights view, would be on solid ground. If we were certain to ruin our health by being vegetarians, or run a serious risk of doing so…and given that the deterioration of our health would deprive us of a greater variety and number of opportunities for satisfaction than those within the range of farm animals, then we would be making ourselves, not the animals, worse-off if we became vegetarians. Thus might we appeal to the liberty principle as a basis for eating meat, assuming the other provisos of that principle were satisfied.
To concede the necessity of meat in a healthy diet is to concede more than is meat’s due. The essential amino acids are essential, that is true; but there are alternative ways to obtain them, ways that do not rely on meat. … Certain amino acids are essential for our health. Meat isn’t. We cannot, therefore, defend meat-eating on the grounds that we will ruin our health if we don’t eat it, or even that we will run a very serious risk of doing so if we abstain. Any “risk” we run can be easily overcome by taking the modest trouble required to do so. (337)
In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer approvingly quotes the American Dietetic Association’s vegetarian position paper giving its stamp of approval to a vegetarian diet, and writes:
I don’t think that individual health is necessarily a reason to become vegetarian, but certainly if it were unhealthy to stop eating animals, that might be a reason not to be vegetarian. It would most certainly be a reason to feed my son animals. (145)
In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer writes:
Apart from the tastiness of their meals, people contemplating vegetarianism are most likely to worry about whether they will be adequately nourished. These worries are entirely groundless. … Nutritional experts no longer dispute about whether animal flesh is essential; they now agree that it is not. If ordinary people still have misgivings about doing without it, these misgivings are based on ignorance. (179 – 182)
And later in Practical Ethics, Singer persisted:
If animals count in their own right, our use of animals for food becomes questionable. Inuit living a traditional lifestyle in the far north where they must eat animals or starve can reasonably claim that their interest in surviving overrides that of the animals they kill. Most of us cannot defend our diet in this way. People living in industrialized societies can easily obtain an adequate diet without the use of animal flesh. Meat is not necessary for good health or longevity. Indeed, humans can live healthy lives without eating any animal products at all… (54)
In “Vegan Power: Anecdotes of Inspiration”, James McWilliams writes:
Perhaps inspired by Lierre Kieth’s The Vegetarian Myth, a book that chronicles the author’s losing battle with a plant-based diet, bloggers have clogged foodie networks with angst-ridden accounts of fatigue, sickness, hair loss, anxiety, diminished sex drive, and mental breakdown after quitting animal products. The problem with these accounts, as far as I can tell, is that those who made the vegan leap (and I praise them for doing it) did so without doing due diligence on the details of intelligent veganism. Someone can live on potato chips, pot, and cherry soda and call himself a vegan. Many recidivists have evidently tried to do just that.
Whether you are convinced by a book such as The China Study or not, there’s no disputing the fact that a diet rich in plant-based, unprocessed food is a smart diet. My point here isn’t to suggest that a diet including modest amounts of lean meat can’t be healthy. It surely can be. Instead, I want to reiterate the equally healthful consequences of a healthy vegan diet. I can brook a million excuses for why a person simply cannot go vegan — cheese! yogurt! cream in my coffee! — but the assertion that veganism, when done right, isn’t healthy is just plain bunk.
In Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog, Gary Francione writes:
It is in no way necessary for human beings to eat meat or other animal products. Indeed, voices as mainstream as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Dietetic Association have now recognized that a completely plant-based diet, supplemented by vitamin B-12, can provide the human body with sufficient protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to maintain excellent health. For health-related reasons, animal foods have been coming under greater suspicion within the mainstream scientific community. Even the most traditional health care professionals are urging a reduction in our consumption of meat and other animal products; others are calling for the elimination of such products from our diet. It is an uncontested fact that vegetarians have lower rates of many forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, gallstones and kidney stones, and other diseases. And we seem to hear on an almost daily basis of illnesses—ranging from simple food poisoning to more exotic maladies such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob (“mad cow” disease)—connected with eating meat. Countries that have shifted from plant-based diets to meat-based diets have experienced increased rates of obesity, heart diseases, and cancer. So not only are animal food unnecessary for our health; they may very well be detrimental to it. (14)
Finally, here’s Francione in an article called “Veganism: Morality, Health, and the Environment”:
We have a moral obligation that we owe to ourselves to be healthy; ingesting products that cause us harm is a form of violence we inflict on ourselves. The empirical evidence becomes stronger each day that animal products are not only not needed for health; they actually cause harm to our bodies in all sorts of ways. Even small amounts of animal products can be harmful. Just as we have a moral obligation not to smoke cigarettes (even a “few”), we have an obligation to make sure that the things we put in and on our bodies (remember that what you put on your skin gets into your body!) do not cause harm. We owe this obligation not only to ourselves, but to the humans and nonhumans who love us and who depend on us. … So, in the end, although I maintain that the moral argument in favor of animal rights and the spiritual argument in favor of nonviolence are the most important notions, we also have moral obligations to ourselves (and to the humans and nonhumans who depend on us) to maintain and improve our health.
Francione doesn’t provide a citation for his assertion that we have moral obligations to maintain and improve our health; but if he’s sticking to that, he’s committed himself to a strange position for someone who philosophizes for soy milk. Not only is meat immoral… so are vegan cupcakes! Even better, if it turned out that a diet with animal products was healthier than one without one, we wouldn’t only have the option to give up veganism: we’d be morally obligated to eat meat!
But of course Francione is convinced that animal products don’t need to be part of anyone’s healthy diet. So are Regan, Singer, Foer, McWilliams, Norris, Messina, Paleovegan and just about every other well-known advocate of veganism.
So what if they changed their minds on this issue and decided that humans, or a lot of them at least, were healthier when their diet included animal products? Apparently, they’d be fine with these humans eating meat. Even vegan leaders allow a health exception to veganism: it’s just that they see this exception as almost entirely theoretical. Notice that when ex-vegans quit veganism for health reasons, most vegans don’t say, “You should have sacrificed your health if you truly cared about animals.” Instead they say, “You did veganism wrong.”
The difference between many vegans and meat eaters, then, is empirical rather than philosophical. No one is saying that animals are worth making big sacrifices over. One side just thinks that veganism is a big sacrifice, and the other side thinks it isn’t.
Yeah, there are plenty of meat eaters who think that meat is unhealthy or unnecessary for health, and yet eat it anyway. And there are also some vegans who would stay vegan even if they started to suspect that it was causing them health difficulties. Those few martyrs aside, though, if vegans were a character in The Wire, they’d be Dante—not Brandon. Vegans are cool with giving up animal products when they think all they’re losing is some measure of habit, convenience, tradition and taste. But if their health starts to nosedive and they don’t think they can fix it without animal products, they’re suffocating salmon and chucking baby chicks into grinders in no time.
Hey, what about the fucking animals, guys? What’s a little brain fog and fatigue when we’re talking about animal lives?
Vegans rarely tire of citing The China Study’s case against animal products or the ADA’s claim that a vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle. But why should it matter whether or not veganism is healthy? It’s not like it would be worth killing hundreds of animals a year just to live longer or have a spring in your step, would it?
Harish at Counting Animals recently crunched some numbers and determined that going vegetarian “saves more than 406 animals each year—a vegetarian saves at least an animal a day!” And that’s just udder-sucking, chicken-period-thieving lacto-ovos. No doubt Harish would find that vegans “save” even more.
Granted, “saves” is a stretch in this context, since what vegans are actually doing is preventing animals from being born through their inaction, something vegans would have been much better at doing by never being born. As for the specific numbers, meat eaters clearly eat less than an animal a day if they’re mostly eating bigger ones like cows, pigs and lambs. Still, meat eating obviously creates a demand for killing animals, whether the motive is taste or health. And if it’s anything like 406 a year, per person—a number Harish says is conservative—that’s a lot of animals to kill just because you feel miserable without a daily dose of flesh to improve your mood. Sure, a lifetime with severe depression sucks, but could that justify taking an animal’s life every day?
For vegans, the answer to this seems to be “yes.”
If veganism were guaranteed to kill you within three months, almost no one would go vegan. If it merely shaved a minute off your life, this probably wouldn’t be much of a deterrent at all. But what if veganism tended to reduce human lifespans by 50 years? At first that seems like a big chunk of your own life to give up for any cause. But look at the trade-off: if you live to 100 instead of 50 because you ate meat every day instead of never, you’ve (arguably) killed at least 40,600 extra animals just to selfishly enjoy a bonus half century. Even if all those animals were killed only a year before the end of their average lifespans, which they almost certainly weren’t, this would imply that 50 years of your life is worth more than 40,600 years of the lives of other animals. Harsh, man. It’s not like it would be these animals’ fault if humans had a nutritional need for animal products.
Yet none of the major animal rights advocates is willing to say that everyone should go vegan even if it kills us.
In veganism, human health comes before the lives of other animals. Vegans just happen to think you don’t need animal products to be healthy. If they thought otherwise, most of them would eat animals… no matter how many animal lives it took to cure their brain fog.